Sunday, May 28, 2023

Neighbor of Florence victims describes fatal incident, New Hanover officials say ‘stay inside’

Though Hurricane Florence is making its way through the Cape Fear region, and may appear to have already passed, area officials urge people to stay off the roads in the aftermath of the storm.

A mother and her infant were killed Friday morning when a large tree, pictured, fell onto their house, marking the first confirmed fatalities of Hurricane Florence in Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo | Mark Darrough)
A mother and her infant were killed Friday morning when a large tree, pictured, fell onto their house on Mercer Avenue, marking the first confirmed fatalities of Hurricane Florence in Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo | Mark Darrough)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Multiple area officials urge those who stuck around for the storm to “stay inside” regardless of if Hurricane Florence appears to be dying down.

New Hanover County’s Sheriff and manager, along with Wilmington’s mayor, chief of police and fire chief shared an update Friday, after the area’s first two confirmed fatalities were announced.

RELATED: FEMA addresses Hurricane Florence rumors, don’t believe everything you read online

First two fatalities

At approximately 7:15 a.m. Friday, multiple area agencies, including Federal Emergency Management Agency’s type one urban task force, responded to a call regarding a fallen tree over a house on Mercer Avenue.

The fallen tree crushed two residents, claiming their lives; it was the first and only entrapment in the area Wilmington’s fire chief is aware of.

A mother and her eight-month-old infant were killed upon impact, while the father was transported to New Hanover Regional Medical Center, where he is still being treated for injuries.

“They were not extracted from the home alive,” Wilmington’s deputy fire chief, Steve Mason, said during the press conference.

An “intense rescue effort” took place in the Wilmington home, police Chief Ralph Evangelous said, which was under voluntary evacuation orders as of Monday. The nearly seven-hour-long extraction effort, which lasted until approximately 2 p.m., Mason said, required airbags, saws, heavy lifting and other specialized equipment to complete.

“I’m just assuming it was their home and they chose to stay,” he said.

“Regular American family,” says neighbor

Neighbor Adam Sparks, 36, said he has lived in Wilmington his whole life and resides across the street from the victims.

“I noticed they were battening down (the trees) and stocking up for the storm ahead, just like most of us were. It’s sad that something like that happened to a neighbor,” Sparks said.

Sparks said his neighbors “were a regular American family just like anyone else.”

Sparks said he was on his own roof patching up some weak spots on Sunday, and was looking at the surrounding tree line for old, dying trees. He then noticed the tree that would later fall on the victims’ house.

“Dead and dying trees are the first ones to snap. It’s a nightmare that nobody ever wants to go through, but here we are,” Sparks said.

“The power went out about 6:30 (in the morning), I heard what I thought was a snap around 6:45. I came to the door — it was pitch black, couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. Just wind and water and a lot of leaves. It was very loud. It was the most aggressive moment of the storm, just about,” he added.

Sparks said he saw the lights of rescue workers and figured they were responding to a downed power line. An hour later, they were still working; then Sparks figured something must have happened.

“When the sun came up a little bit I was able to see a huge tree on my neighbor’s house,” he said.

The fire department was first on the scene — a few minutes after he had heard the noise — followed by police and paramedics, Sparks said.

“Typical local firemen is all I can say. They worked very diligently, tirelessly, for hours on end, trying to get that family out of there,” he added.

“(The storm) is not to be messed with, it’s still a large storm. I’ve lived here my whole life, have been through dozens of storms. This is the first time that something like this has happened on this block since I’ve been alive,” Sparks said.

After the storm

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo warned all of the county’s residents, of which 90 percent are without power, to stay off the streets.

“A lot of deaths that happen in the hurricane, happen in the aftermath of a hurricane,” Saffo said. “Be safe, because we also have a lot of downed power lines.”

Evangelous shared updates of snapped power polls, downed and live power lines, major roadway blockages, with more trees expected to fall.

“Our officers are continuing to respond to calls and we are basing those calls on priority,” Evangelous said.

People who have chosen to stick out Hurricane Florence in the greater Wilmington area are encouraged not to call 911 for non-emergency situations, Mason said. Downed power lines should be reported to Duke Energy so that county and city personnel can prioritize their rescue efforts. Non-emergency information will be made available to callers at 910-798-6800.

“We’ve had a number of calls this morning that we have had to stack, lower priority calls,” Mason said. “So we are in in the process of catching up.”

Though emergency service crews are not obliged to respond to calls during hurricane-force winds, on Friday, the Wilmington Fire Department responded to a structure fire early Friday.

Crews were deployed to Castle Hayne duing tropical force winds based on a judgement call, Mason said. The home was deemed a total loss, with no fatalities or injuries.

Curfew in effect

To help aide rescue and emergency service personnel, the county has imposed its first curfew, beginning Friday evening at 10 p.m. The county’s manager, Chris Coudriet, said.

They’re not alone; New Hanover is joined by Brunswick and Pender Counties, which both annoucned their first hurricane curfews Friday afternoon as well.

“A curfew is the right thing for our community,” Courdriet said. “The worst of this storm has not passed.”

New Hanover County’s Sheriff, Ed McMahon, urged people to stay at home and to be careful.

“It is absolutely dangerous out there,” McMahon said. With looters and energized power lines on the ground as result of the hurricane, McMahon said it’s best to stay inside.

“I have witnessed people driving over the lines,” he said. “We’ve already had one of the deputies sustain head injury out there.”

Get the latest storm updates, along with information about shelters, evacuations, re-entry, and recovery efforts at — all storm-related info is free, with or without a subscription.

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